Before movies, there were plays, and before plays there were stories told around the campfire. One of the deepest human impulses is the need to tell our stories in part because of the way they help us make sense of the world. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end and stories have a purpose. Extraneous details are excluded and everything we are told is there to help us understand. The power of stories is that they provide something life cannot — certainty and a sense of control.
“Doubt” is a story that turns this upside down. The title refers not just to the question of proof of the ugly allegation at the heart of the story but to our own need for certainty and understanding in a world that is ambiguous and contradictory.
It takes place in 1964, a transitional moment just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and in the middle of the Vatican II Ecumenical Council that would bring great change to the practice of Catholicism. We smile now as school principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) , comes down firmly against ball point pens and “Frosty the Snowman” because we know how small those incursions on tradition are in comparison to the upheavals of the late 1960’s. Sister Aloysius wears the heavy, formal religious habit modeled after Italian mourning garb of the 19th century, with a black bonnet enclosing her head so completely it might as well be blinders.
Sister Aloysius, named for the patron saint of youth, knows about mortal sins far more serious than pens and secular Christmas songs. She thinks, no, she knows that one of the most horrifying has been committed in her school. She knows, without a doubt, that the priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has behaved inappropriately with a student. And he is not just any student; he is the first black child to enroll in the school.
Sister Aloysius is certain, but we are not, and the most compelling aspect of the movie, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is the way that it keeps us from any kind of certainty. Every time you think you’ve made up your mind who is right, another scene challenges you assumptions. By the time the boy’s mother (Viola Davis, in one of the most mesmerizing performances of the year) gives her point of view, the movie becomes something of a Rubik’s cube, twisting not just facts but values in both directions at once. Like life.
Carrey-ologists will enjoy poring over the semiotics of “Yes Man,” in one sense a very slight variation of one of Jim Carrey’s biggest hits, 1997’s Liar Liar. In both films, he plays a divorced professional man who has in essence checked out emotionally and spiritually. In the first he simply says whatever will get him what he wants, even if it is not true. He does the same here, except that it’s all the same lie: “I’m busy.” Like Melville’s famous character Bartleby he responds to all offers and invitations, one way or another, “I prefer not to.” Just as in a wish in “Liar Liar” turns him into a man who can only tell the truth, in this film a “no” character commits to saying “yes” to everything, from spam invitations to try out persianwife.com to a very big guy in a bar asking him if he wants to step outside for a fight.
Both films have wives who with new significant others who make the Carrey character feel diminished, and in both a large part of the screen time and all of the humor comes from Carrey’s squirming through the consequences of his reversal and the way he must deal with the larger consequences of his previous bad behavior. As always, Carrey makes some funny faces and uses his rubbery limbs to good comic effect.
But with nearly a decade between the two films, Carrey and Carl, his character, bring a more poignant sense of longing and lost chances. It is significant that this film does not require any hocus-pocus to get the story started. It just establishes that Carrey is a no-guy, feeling sorry for himself and turning down just about everything. Fortunately, he is a bank loan officer, so this tendency has professional benefits. But in his personal life, he says no to his friends and would-be friends (his nerdy boss) to stay home and watch DVDs and feel sorry for himself.
And then one day an old friend suggests that he go to a motivational seminar led by a man named Terrence (played by Terence Stamp, no idea why the character name has two r’s and the actor has just one) who persuades him to start saying “yes.” To everything. That means giving a ride to a homeless guy and going to his boss’s Harry Potter party, taking Korean lessons, and learning to fly. Not to mention approving a lot of loans. It seems to him that there is a pattern because each of those yeses leads to something unexpected and wonderful, the best of all being a free-spirited girl named Alison (Zooey Deschanel), a natural yes-er. Just a hop skip and a jump to the getting-to-know-you montage, the second act complication, and a happily-yessing-ever-after conclusion with a little gratuitous nudity.
The characters around Carl and Alison don’t add much and her character does not have much depth, but the Carrey and Deschanel have an easy chemistry that gives the film a strong center. And the film nicely hints at the interconnection of all things and the way the messages we send out to the universe — whether yes or no — reverberate and return to us.
Two guys who are super-smart and super-rich, Warren Buffet and Pete Peterson and one guy who is just super-smart, former Comptroller General of the United States David Walker have a message for Americans — don’t spend money you don’t have.
Think of Maxed Out, the terrifying documentary about the way credit card companies exploit the weak, the vulnerable, and the spendthrifts, crossed with An Inconvenient Truth, the terrifying documentary about the way the century following the industrial revolution has caused irreparable damage to the earth’s ecosystem, and you have “IOUSA,” which shows us irrefutable evidence that the biggest balloon payment in history is about to come due.
Using the now-familiar combination of folksy faux-archival educational movies, person-on-the-street interviews with completely clueless citizens (“I thought the US was lending money to other countries,” one says when asked about the size of our debt), bad news from a lot of very erudite talking heads and some really, really scary charts, “IOUSA” tells us that while we have been lowering taxes and increasing benefits we have been pushing onto our children and grandchildren the fastest-growing debt load in history. We finance this by selling our debt securities to countries that can afford them, like China. Foreign interests hold more than half of U.S. debt. China owns more than $500 billion worth. So does Japan. The movie says that the inability of Great Britain to defend the Suez Canal in 1956 was in part due to its vulnerability caused by post-WWII debt. It is certain that having countries like China, Japan ($583.3 billion), and the oil exporting countries ($170.4 billion) holding our I.O.U.’s puts a worrisome burden on our ability to engage in diplomatic negotiations.
Most troubling is that the Enron-like accounting that hides the real debt level for political expediency. Just as Enron used “special purpose entities” to keep its debts off the balance sheet, the government does not include Social Security and the costs of other benefit programs in its financial statement. The entitlement programs currently in place will bankrupt the system when the baby boomers start receiving benefits.
It is difficult to make a dry and disturbing subject like budget deficits seem interesting and vital. There are no cuddly polar bears trying to hold on to shrinking ice caps or visceral individual stories like those in Michael Moore’s movies. But this movie makes a devastating case for the consequence of our current “rob Peter to pay Paul” budgetary shell game. It is like fiscal musical chairs; when the music stops, there will be no place to sit.
America has redefined the rules and shown the world new possibilities since our beginning. Now we face the direst challenge in our history — to reverse what has always been the inevitable cycle of history and create sustained growth and prosperity. This movie asks the important questions and makes it clear that it is we who must answer them.
Want to dance like Hannah Montana? She shows you how to do the “Hoedown Throwdown” in this cilp.
If you and your friends learn it, film it, and upload your dance to youtube, send me the link at email@example.com and I will post it on my blog.
And don’t forget this cute look at the movie mistakes — watch the good spirits of the kids when things don’t go as they’re supposed to.
The first three people to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Hannah” in the subject line will get a Hannah Montana DVD!